Bacha bazi (Persian: بچه بازی, literally "playing with children" in Iranian Persian and "playing with boys" in Dari or Afghan Persian), also known as bacchá (from Dari bacha بچه "child, young man, calf") or bacha bereesh ("beardless boy"), is a slang term that is commonly used for sexual slavery and child prostitution in which prepubescent and adolescent boys are sold to wealthy or powerful men for entertainment and sexual activities. Bacheh-baazi has existed throughout history. It is still found in parts of northern Afghanistan, and in the Pashtun regions of southern Afghanistan. Some of the individuals involved report being forced into sex. The authorities are barely attempting to crack down on the practice but many doubt it would be effective since many of the men are powerful and well-armed warlords including former Northern Alliance commanders.
During the Taliban's rule (1994-2001), the practice of Bacha Bazi was officially banned, with those convicted of sodomy facing the death penalty. A documentary film by Najibullah Quraishi about the practice was screened by the UK Royal Society of Arts on March 29, 2010 and aired by the U.S. TV series PBS Frontline on 20 April 2010. The practice is illegal under Afghan law, being "against both sharia law and the civil code", but the laws are seldom enforced against powerful offenders and police have been reportedly complicit in related crimes.
The UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict reported in 2009, "It is time to openly confront this practice and to put an end to it. Religious leaders in Afghanistan appealed to me to assist them in combating these activities. Laws should be passed, campaigns must be waged and perpetrators should be held accountable and punished. Boys, as well as girls, should be protected so that they are allowed the full benefits of a childhood without exploitation."
The practice of bacha bazi is a form of pederasty which has been prevalent in that area since ancient times. Historically more common, especially in Central Asia, than at present, it waned in the big cities after World War I, forced out for reasons that dance historian Anthony Shay describes as "Victorian era prudery and severe disapproval of colonial powers such as the Russians, British, and French, and the post-colonial elites who had absorbed those Western colonial values."
A number of western travellers through Central Asia have reported on the phenomenon of the bacchá. Visiting Turkestan in 1872 to 1873, Eugene Schuyler observed that, "here boys and youths specially trained take the place of the dancing-girls of other countries. The moral tone of the society of Central Asia is scarcely improved by the change". His opinion was that the dances "were by no means indecent, though they were often very lascivious." At this date there were already signs of official disapproval of the practice. Wrote Schuyler:
These batchas, or dancing-boys, are a recognised institution throughout the whole of the settled portions of Central Asia, though they are most in vogue in Bokhara and the neighbouring Samarkand. In the khanate of Khokand public dances have for some years been forbidden - the formerly licentious Khan having of late put on a semblance of morality and severity.... In Tashkent batchas flourished until 1872, when a severe epidemic of cholera influenced the Mullahs to declare that dancing was against the precepts of the Koran, and at the request of the leaders of the native population, the Russian authorities forbade public dances during that summer.
Schuyler remarked that the ban had barely lasted a year, so enthusiastic were the Sarts for a bazem "dance". He further describes the respect and affection the dancers often received:
These batchas are as much respected as the greatest singers and artistes are with us. Every movement they make is followed and applauded, and I have never seen such breathless interest as they excite, for the whole crowd seems to devour them with their eyes, while their hands beat time to every step. If a batcha condescends to offer a man a bowl of tea, the recipient rises to take it with a profound obeisance, and returns the empty bowl in the same way, addressing him only as Taxir, 'your Majesty', or Kulluk 'I am your slave'. Even when a batcha passes through the bazaar all who know him rise to salute him with hands upon their hearts, and the exclamation of Kulluk! and should he deign to stop and rest in any shop, it is thought a great honour.
He also reports that a rich patron would often help establish a favorite dancer in business after he had grown too old to carry on his profession.
Cushions and rugs were fetched, on which we gratefully reclined, great carpets were spread over the court, the natives puffed at their narghiles, politely offering them to us, and the famous Khivan bachehs made their entrance. Backstage, an orchestra mainly composed of twin flutes, kettle drums, and half a dozen man-sized silver trumpets took up its stand. Opposite us a door left slightly ajar led to the harem quarters. We caught a glimpse of flashing eyes as the inmates thronged to the door to have a good look at us and watch the performance.
The orchestra started up with a curious, plaintive melody, the rhythm being taken up and stressed by the kettle drums, and four bachehs took up their positions on the carpet.The bachehs are young men specially trained to perform a particular set of dances. Barefoot, and dressed like women in long, brightly coloured silk smocks reaching below their knees and narrow trousers fastened tightly round their ankles, their arms and hands sparkle with rings and bracelets. They wear their hair long, reaching below the shoulders, though the front part of the head is clean shaven. The nails of the hands and feet are painted red, the eyebrows are jet black and meet over the bridge of the nose. The dances consist of sensuous contortions of the body and a rhythmical pacing to and fro, with the hands and arms raised in a trembling movement. As the ballet proceeded the number of dancers increased, the circle grew in size, the music waxed shriller and shriller and the eyes of the native onlookers shone with admiration, while the bachehs intoned a piercing melody in time with the ever-growing tempo of the music. The Heir explained that they were chanting of love and the beauty of women. Swifter and swifter moved the dancers till they finally sank to the floor, seemingly exhausted and enchanted by love. They were followed by others, but the general theme was usually the same.
In 1909, two bacchá performed among the entertainers at the Central Asian Agricultural, Industrial and Scientific Exposition in Tashkent. Noting the public's constant interest in and laughter at the performance, several locally based researchers recorded the lyrics of the songs performed by the two boys (16-year-old Hadji-bacchá and 10-year-old Sayid-bacchá, both from the then Margilan uyezd). The songs were then published them in the original "Sart language" (Uzbek) and the Russian translation.
Under the Taliban, bacha bazi was declared homosexual in nature, and therefore banned. The Taliban's opposition to bacha bazi was that they considered it incompatible with Sharia Law, and outlawed the practice after coming to power in 1996. Sexual relations with adolescents were considered sodomy with the charge carrying the death penalty.
A 2011 study in Pakistan involving four boys found similarities and differences between the practice in Pakistan and those observed among the Uzbeks and Pashtun of Afghanistan in the 1970s by Ingeborg Baldauf.
Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi made a documentary film titled The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan about the practice, which was shown in the U.K. in March, 2010 and aired in the U.S. the following month. Journalist Nicholas Graham of The Huffington Post lauded the documentary as "both fascinating and horrifying." The film won the 2011 Documentary award in the Amnesty International UK Media Awards. The film was broadcast on Channel 4's More4 service.
The issue has been covered by RAWA, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. The practice of bacha bazi prompted the US Defense Department to hire social scientist AnnaMaria Cardinalli to investigate the problem, as Western soldiers on patrol often passed older men walking hand-in-hand with pretty young boys. British soldiers found that young Afghan men were actually trying to "touch and fondle them," which the soldiers didn't understand.
In the novel The Kite Runner, and in the movie of the same name, the practice of bacha bazi is depicted. In the plot, the protagonist's half-nephew is forced to become a dancing boy and sexual slave to a high-ranking official of the Taliban government, who also had, years earlier, raped the boy's father when the father was a pre-teen and the official was a teenager.
In December 2010 a cable made public by WikiLeaks revealed that foreign contractors from DynCorp had spent money on bacha bazi in northern Afghanistan. Afghan interior minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar requested that the US military assume control over DynCorp training centers in response, but the US embassy claimed that this was not "legally possible under the DynCorp contract".
In March 2011, The Documentary series on the BBC World Service addressed the concerns over the increased incidence of Dancing Boys and how this was at odds with the image which many wish to project about the post-Taliban future.
In December 2012, a young man in an "improper relationship" with a border guard commander killed eight guards. He had made a drugged meal for the guards and then, with the help of two friends, attacked them, after which they fled to the Taliban in Pakistan.
In a 2014 article in the Third World Quarterly, Nivi Manchanda argues that Western reaction to Afghan sexual culture is part of a long tradition in Orientalism which sees Muslim culture in a culturally biased light. She writes, "It is telling that the term 'bisexual' is not once used to describe these men, who often have wives and themselves admit that they like both men and women.... That Afghan men may have polymorphous sexual desires or engage in polyamorous relationships is a possibility that lies beyond the purview of the Western reporter. The messy complexities of a repressive society with its members participating in fluid sexual relationships are too great to comprehend – they are written off as unnatural aberrations characterised by 'gynaeophobia'.... Alternately constructing Afghan male relationships as culturally sanctioned paedophilia, ‘homosexuality’ resulting from a ‘lack of options’ and a perverse understanding of intimacy, these articles provide as much insight into ‘our’ prejudices as they do about ‘their’ customs."
- Bacha posh
- Child sexual abuse
- Human rights in Afghanistan
- Islam and sexual orientation
- Ubayd Zakani
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- Nivi Manchanda (19 November 2014) "Queering the Pashtun: Afghan sexuality in the homo-nationalist imaginary", Third World Quarterly
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- Craig S. Smith (February 21, 2002) "Kandahar Journal; Shh, It's an Open Secret: Warlords and Pedophilia", New York Times
- Mondloch, Chris. "Bacha Bazi: An Afghan Tragedy." Foreign Policy. Monday 28 October 2013.
- Also in: Mondloch, Chris. "An Afghan Tragedy: The Pashtun practice of having sex with young boys." The Independent. Tuesday 29 October 2013.
- Thorson, Jane E. and Dr Bareq Sadeq. "Forgotten No More: Male Child Trafficking in Afghanistan." Hagar International. Thursday 3 April 2014.